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International effort to investigate immune-related genes
  
By Christina A. Pan

The US National Institutes of Health has launched a $20-million initiative to catalog all of the genes that constitute the human immune complex and to identify differences among these genes in populations worldwide. The $20 million, to be spent over five years, will go to members of the International Histocompatibility Working Group, a network of some 200 laboratories in more than 70 countries.

Scientists will organize a centralized database for a group of approximately 220 genes that together form the human leukocyte antigen (HLA) gene complex. These are the genes that govern the immunological success or failure of organ transplantation, determine whether vaccines work or not in any given individual, and play a role in an individual's susceptibility to disease.

"The HLA complex comprises the most diverse and variable region in the human genome," says Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. "Knowledge about its diversity and how these genes direct immune responses could improve our ability to predict, diagnose and treat immune-mediated disorders and infectious diseases." John A. Hansen, of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, will head the international project, which, he says, "will apply recent advances in genome technology to important questions about specific diseases and help explain how the rich genetic differences in HLA among individuals can either strengthen the immune response or open the door to autoimmune disease and infection."

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